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Doctrinal Matters: Difficult Passages

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Israelite Midwives in Egypt

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.

Q.

Were the midwives who attended the Israelites Egyptians or Hebrews?

A.

Students of Old Testament history will recall that as the Hebrew people prospered under Egyptian bondage, their numbers began to grow to the point that it greatly disturbed the Egyptian pharaoh. In order to curb their numbers, and thereby quell any possibility of a future rebellion against his kingdom, the pharaoh gave orders that when male children were born to the Hebrews, they should be killed at birth. Exodus 1:15-16 records:

And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah. And he said, “When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it be a son, then ye shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.”

There never has been any controversy over the intent of the pharaoh’s edict. The text of Exodus 1 makes it clear that the Hebrews’ neonatal sons were to be destroyed at birth, in order to prevent the Hebrew nation from growing too powerful for the Egyptians to control. But there has been some controversy over whether the midwives who attended the Israelite women were of Hebrew or Egyptian descent.

At first glance, the controversy would appear to be “much ado about nothing,” since the text itself states: “And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives….” But the issue is not quite as clear as it might seem. Numerous biblical scholars and commentators, who have studied the original Hebrew language within the text of Exodus 1:1-22, have concluded that, in the context, the term “Hebrew midwives” actually should be construed as “midwives to the Hebrews.”

For example, in his discussion of Exodus 1:15, commentator Albert Barnes, suggested that the phrase “Hebrew midwives” should be translated literally as “midwives of the Hebrew women.” He then observed: “The women bear Egyptian names, and were probably Egyptian” (1970, p. 8). In volume one of his Bible Commentary, E.M. Zerr wrote:

These midwives were not Hebrew women but Egyptian according to Josephus. But they are here called Hebrew midwives because they had the special assignment of that work for the Hebrew women. This is apparent also from their names, which are not Hebrew in form. Also, in verse 22 it says his people when charging those on duty at the time of birth of the children. Furthermore, it is not likely that Pharaoh would entrust the business to the Hebrew women since he was much interested in having the babies destroyed in whom they would have had a personal interest (1954, p. 104, emp. added).

W.H. Gispen, in his commentary on Exodus, remarked:

The king summoned the two Egyptian midwives of the Hebrews.... It does not make sense to assume that Hebrew midwives are meant, since the king’s plan would then have been doomed to failure from the start. The speech in verse 16 also indicates that the king was not dealing with women who themselves were Hebrews (1982, p. 36).

I find myself in agreement with these commentators. In its context, Exodus 1:22 provides a critical piece of information when it notes that “...Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, ‘Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river.’ ” It was not the Hebrews that Pharaoh charged to carry out this ghastly deed, but “his” people, i.e., Egyptians. And, as Gispen correctly noted, the whole idea of Pharaoh expecting Hebrew midwives to destroy Hebrew newborns would make little sense, and would be doomed from the start. Furthermore, in verse 19, the midwives offered an excuse to Pharaoh to explain why they were unsuccessful in destroying the newborn Hebrew males. “And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwife come unto them.’ ” The question obviously arises—how would Hebrew midwives have such intimate knowledge of the birthing process of Egyptian women? Egyptian midwives certainly would be expected to know such a thing, but how could Hebrew midwives be expected to possess such knowledge? Additionally, notice that Pharaoh accepted their excuse. Is it likely (again, considering the context) that an Egyptian Pharaoh would have accepted what he very likey would have viewed as a “lame excuse” from Hebrew slave-women serving as midwives? Hardly.

All things considered, therefore, I believe it is correct to state that the phrase of Exodus 1:15, “Hebrew midwives” is, in fact, correctly understood as “Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews” (as the Jewish historian Josephus corroborated).

REFERENCES

Barnes, Albert (1973 reprint), Notes on the New Testament: Exodus-Ruth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Gispen, W.H. (1982), Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Zerr, E.M. (1954), Bible Commentary (Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Publications).




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